Great! Another movie with a Stalinist hero

When, other than under the Third Reich itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as an endorsement of totalitarianism.

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

But for some reason the same doesn’t apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something resembling a classical liberal.

The real-life Melita Stedman Norwood

The latest contribution this reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 – years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her crimes.

Trevor Nunn

Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter called Red Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.

Judi Dench as “Red Joan”

In real life, Norwood was the daughter of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop. Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism, investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on nukes and thus make the world safer.

After perusing the idiotic reviews in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters described it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard for some people to see?

Becoming a traitor

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J. Edgar Hoover

After World War II, there would be much talk about the “paranoia” about Communism that supposedly could be found in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But during the years between the world wars, the problem in the nation’s capital was the opposite. Almost anybody working at, say, the State or War department could easily access classified documents. Communist sympathies on the part of high-level officials were accepted with a shrug by the FBI and other agencies. J. Edgar Hoover and his men were all but oblivious to the danger of Soviet spying.

In fact there were plenty of Soviet spies in Washington, some of whom held very high-level positions in the U.S. government. Those who worked for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) reported to J. Peters, a Hungarian who had been born Sándor Goldberger and who worked out of the American Communist Party’s offices in New York. In 1934, Peters sent one of his underlings, Hede Massing, to Washington to try to enlist State Department official Noel Field, as Kati Marton reports in her fascinating biography of Field. As it happened, Field was also being wooed by a friend at State, Alger Hiss, who worked for the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency.

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Hede Massing

Field hesitated, then finally signed up with the NKVD in the fall of 1935.

Spying proved easy. These were days, he later recalled, when the “most secret documents… circulated from hand to hand.”

His new NKVD colleagues noticed several things about Field. One was his incredible naivete. Another was the “innate need for a guiding faith to imbue his life with meaning”: this “made him a devoted Communist.” Yet another was his desperate need to obey orders: he was a follower, not a leader or original thinker. “Noel could be strong only when he was doing what his superiors told him to do,” his friend and fellow spy Paul Massing later observed. Then there was his absolute belief in the goodness and rightness of Stalin and the Party. “For Noel,” Massing said, “the leaders of the Revolution can do no wrong.”

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Noel Field (right) at the League of Nations, 1939

Leaving the State Department in 1936, Field went to Geneva to work for the League of Nations – and to continue his espionage work. The next year, this young man who’d been drawn to Communism by a desire to usher in a better world was an accessory to the assassination of Ignaz Reisz, a veteran Soviet spy chief who’d dared to complain to Stalin about the show trials and executions of loyal Communists that were then underway in the USSR. Field had no remorse about this coldblooded murder. “He was a traitor,” Field said. “He deserved to die.”

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Gen. Walter Krivitsky

Field wasn’t troubled by the show trials, at which heroes of the Russian Revolution were railroaded and condemned to death. Other Communists, however, were outraged. Among them was Field’s handler, General Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the U.S., wrote exposés of Stalinism in the Saturday Evening Post, and ended up being murdered by Soviet agents in a Washington hotel room – a victim of Western officials’ unawareness of just how brutal the Kremlin was. (Krivitsky had actually told British Intelligence about the spies who’d later be known as the Cambridge Five, but they, like the FBI, had responded with a shrug.)

In 1938, a former colleague told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Field was a Communist. But thanks to official Washington’s – and America’s – lackadaisical attitude toward Communism during the FDR years, nothing happened to him. At about the same time, Field’s State Department friend Larry Duggan was also revealed to be a Soviet agent, but he, too, got away with it. Indeed, instead of being arrested or at least fired, Duggan was – incredibly – promoted: during most of World War II he served as assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a position that provided him with access to the nation’s most secret documents.

More tomorrow.

Smollett: the spy who got away

Yesterday we discussed George Orwell’s 1949 list of literary and journalistic colleagues whom he viewed as “crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way.” Among them, we pointed out, was New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who at the time was considered the ultimate authority on the Soviet Union – but whose name has since become synonymous with shameless journalistic dishonesty and the systematic whitewashing of tyranny.

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George Orwell

Another name on Orwell’s list was that of Peter Smollett. Born in Vienna in 1912 as Hans Peter Smolka, he relocated in 1933 to Britain, where, according to writer Daniel J. Leab, he “wrote pro-Soviet travel journalism for various US outlet during the 1930s, became a naturalized British subject in 1938, changed his name, and after the war’s outbreak joined the Ministry of Information, where he energetically organized pro-Soviet propaganda and suppressed ‘unfavorable comment’ on Stalinist Russia.”

Animal-FarmHis title at the Ministry was Head of Soviet Relations. At the height of the war, when Orwell sent Animal Farm, his classic indictment of Soviet Communism, around to various publishers, one of them, Jonathan Cape, was “reported to be initially keen on the manuscript,” but “bowed out after consulting an ‘important official’ at the Ministry of Information, who advised against publication.” That official was Peter Smollett. On his list, Orwell described Smollett as “a very slimy person” who was “almost certainly [an] agent of some kind.”

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Kim Philby’s 1990 USSR commemorative stamp

He was right. After his death in 1980, Smollett/Smolka was revealed to have been an agent of the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which, in addition to performing espionage, ran the Gulag labor camps, conducted mass executions, and carried out mass deportations of various minorities and farmers. The Mitrokhin Archive, which we discussed a while back, records that Smollett was recruited as a spy in 1939 by double agent Kim Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge Five, and that his NKVD cover name was ABO. Smollett’s wartime NKVD work, notes Henry Hemming, “was held in high regard by Moscow.” Not only did he pass top-secret information on to the Kremlin (working first under Philby and later under another one of the Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess); he was also an invaluable pro-Soviet propagandist. In communications to higher-ups at the Ministry,

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Guy Burgess in Moscow, 1956, after his defection to the USSR

Smollett would exaggerate Soviet concerns, refuse to give in to them and then suggest as a quid pro quo a more Soviet-friendly stance on other issues. He maintained, for example, that the Soviets were exceptionally thin-skinned and, as such, no stories about Stalinist persecution could be broadcast. Smollett encouraged the BBC to run stories that exaggerated the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR….Elsewhere Smollett pushed the idea that after the war the USSR would be too weak to do anything other than rebuild.

The result of Smollett’s efforts was substantial. Hemming describes it as a “red haze” that “swept over Britain after the entry of the USSR into the war.” What he means is that Britain, thanks in large part to Smollett’s initiatives, was given a consistently prettified image of life under Stalin. As Hemming puts it, Smollett “helped to blur the line between the heroic Russians and the brutal Soviet regime.”

Smollett, Hemming points out, “was not unmasked during his lifetime, and instead enjoyed a successful post-war career as a respected Times correspondent and was even awarded an OBE.” But Orwell knew.

More tomorrow.